The Letters Of Rimbaud


Before I leave off discussing the work of 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, I’d like to talk briefly about a few of the more interesting letters he sent in his life.  I think this additional entry on the poet (the fourth!) is justified because Rimbaud is one of those poets whose personal life and work are intricately bound together.  Come to think of it, this seems to be a more common occurrence with poets than with prose writers.  I suppose it is because poets are often bearing their souls, thus giving us readers a sense of intimacy with them as people, whereas story-tellers are almost doing the opposite:  they are trying really hard to sound like somebody else, namely their characters.

Rimbaud, who stopped writing poetry very young, and then went on to die a lingering excruciating death in his thirties, wrote to Banville in May 1870 concerning his ludicrously early start as a accomplished Poet and of the dawning of the Springtime of his career:

“We are in the months of love; I am seventeen. The age of hope and dreams, they say– and now I have begun, a child touched by the finger of the Muse– excuse me if this is banal– to express my good beliefs, my hopes, my sensations, all those things dear to poets– and this I call the Spring.”

Rimbaud would only write poetry for a few years—a brief but beautiful flowering of artistry.  This meant that he was always and only a young poet.  He was quite aware of his youthfulness, but in no way abashed by it.  Later, he does seem to have felt a little embarrassed by the acute sensitivity he displayed as a teenager, but at another point (in A Season In Hell) he claims, “I do not regret the age of tender hearts.”

Rimbaud from the start possessed an overflowing confidence in is gift— and he did see it, I think –at least in its raw, acorn form– as a gift (one from “the Muse”).  As he writes to Izambard in May 1871:

“One has to be born a poet, and I know I am a poet.  This is not my fault.”  […]  “It is too bad for the wood which finds itself a violin”

Rimbaud, at age 17, did not know what sort of volcano was rumbling and burning inside him (“I do not know what is inside me that wants to come out,” he tells Banville), but he had no doubt it was there: he watched it develop almost as if he were a spectator— but an active spectator, as one can be an active reader or listener.  He writes to Demeny in May 1871, “I am present at this birth of my thought.”

Finding himself blessed with the poetic faculty at so tender an age, Rimbaud grasps immediately that to develop his gift to its full potential, he must begin gathering experiences.  But not just mundane experiences—his gift was too great for that, I dare say he assumed; he needed to dive deeply into Life, drink it down to the dregs.  He did not want to nibble around the edges of existence spouting crumbs of “rhymed prose”— He wanted to engulf it all and spew sublime geysers from his navel.

I think Rimbaud was aware that his raw talent outmatched his relative youth and lack of experience, and that this was an imbalance he must quickly rectify if he wanted to move from good poet to Great Poet.  Thus, his quest for experience.

Besides his need to gain experience for his craft, Rimbaud had another reason for kicking down the barndoor of his staid, provincial life and seeking high times in the big city:  he had suffered years of pent-up repression and oppression under the rule of his domineering mother –whom he once described as“inflexible as seventy-three administrations with steel helmets.”  Thus, even without the excuse of a Muse to serve, Rimbaud was more than ready to begin his personal rebellion against the Universe.  It was said that Rimbaud was so rambunctious a young colt out in public that his flaunting of etiquette and his raucous behavior would sometimes embarrass even his good-timing cohorts.

Of course, a requisite for obtaining outrageous and voluminous life-experience is the possession of a certain amount of freedom, and in Rimbaud’s Europe, and is in our own world today, that kind of personal liberty by and large necessitates money.  Unfortunately for Rimbaud, he was born poor and without societal position or connections.  This put a great and very unwelcome restraint upon his ambitions to party hearty.  Rimbaud overleaped the hurdle of his poverty and went about his exploration of the seedier side of life by becoming a great manipulator of his friends and admirers.  He tells Banville:

 “Cynically, I am having myself kept.  I looked up old imbeciles from school:  I serve them with whatever I can invent that is stupid, filthy, mean in acts and words.  They pay me in beer and liquor.”

All this he did for his own pleasure, of course, but also –at least he told himself—in the service of a noble, ulterior motive; as he writes to Izambard:

“Now I am degrading myself as much as possible.  Why?  I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a Seer:  you will not understand this, and I don’t know how to explain it to you.  It is a question of reaching the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.  The sufferings are enormous…”

Like Izambard (presumably), I do not understand why Rimbaud was so determined that his gathering-up of life’s experiences should be so soul-crushingly perverse and miserable.  At some subconscious level, did he feel he needed to be punished? that only through punishment could he be cleansed of his scarlet sins and made a vessel pure enough to receive the holiest communions?

Or was this some sort of twisted-Catholic belief he had idiosyncratically developed that all great prophets must be first degraded and outcast and nailed upon the cross?

To my knowledge Rimbaud never expressed (and perhaps never introspectively sought) a logical argument for why he felt he must regress to a more bestial state or why he must then also suffer so immensely for that life-style choice.  “The soul must be made monstrous,” he tells Demeny, “Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face.”  Yet he never says precisely how he arrived at this conclusion from first principles.

Maybe what Rimbaud felt was, at heart, a different manifestation of what many of us feel at some point in our lives (often in our late teens):  the need to throw off the yokes and expectations of society, to stop-up the mouths of all those telling us who we are supposed to be— and to find out for ourselves who we really are.  Perhaps Rimbaud was tearing down all the scaffolding society had built around him in order to collapse into his primordial gelatin and attempt, using the raw materials of his most unimproved self, to rebuild himself organically into his truest form.  

If so, this is indeed a scary and monstrous place to go.  Consider my metaphor of the scaffolding.  Society builds this around us to, basically, keep us in our place.  But imagine if we start kicking away those boards at the scaffolding’s very foundation…  For instance, if Society tells me:  “You are not a murderer,” but I decide that I can’t just take their word for it and demand the “freedom” to find out for myself:  “Am I not a murderer?  How do I know?  Because you tell me?”  In this way, the strongest taboos and deepest sins would each, arguably, necessitate a visitation and exploration.  As far as civilized behavior goes, this could prove “monstrous,” indeed.

Writing to Demeny (a sprawling May 1871 missive), Rimbaud declares that:

“The first study of the man who wants to be a Poet is the knowledge of himself, complete.  He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it.  As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it.  […]  I say one must be a Seer, make oneself a Seer.  The Poet makes himself a Seer by a long, gigantic, and rational derangement of all the senses.  All forms of love, suffering, and madness.  He searches himself.  He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.  Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed– and the supreme Scholar!– Because he reaches the Unknown!” […]  “Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizon where the other one collapsed!”

Oddly enough, the one place the young Rimbaud embraced the rules was (especially early on) in his poetry.  A good portion of his best work utilizes rhyme and/or meter.  Later in his short life, when he is hellbent on making a fortune in exotic lands, he will also adapt to playing mostly by the rules for the sake of the money game— though even then, he was far from conventional and played the game (often unsuccessfully) in a risky and adventurous fashion.

As far as the purpose and content of Poetry, itself, Rimbaud at one point lauds the ability of the “verses and lyres” of the Ancient Greeks to “give rhythm to action,” and I think this as close as he comes to handing down a specific aesthetic for Poetry:  Poetry Gives Rhythm To Action.  Usually, he is more interested in talking about the Poet than about Poetry.

When Rimbaud does speak (to Demeny) about the history of poetry, he is dismissive of most it, claiming that since the poets of Ancient Greece, “music and rhymes are games and pastimes.”  He sneers that most poets of the last two thousand years have been mere “versifiers,” and what they wrote was no more than “rhymed prose, a game.”  He speaks of “countless idiotic generations” of poets— until, that is, we come to the great Racine, who was “pure, strong, and great” (and coincidentally, French).  “After Racine,” says Rimbaud, “the game gets moldy.”  And Rimbaud seems to have special disdain for the Romantics—who he says “prove so obviously that a song is so seldom a work.”   

Ah, but the true Poet, the great Poet, says Rimbaud, he “is truly the thief of fire.  He is responsible for humanity.”  The great Poet’s work in days to come will surpass even Rimbaud’s ideal of giving “rhythm to action;” the great Poet of the future will produce poetry that doesn’t just accompany the works of man like some sort of fancy soundtrack to life’s movie– but will actually, in and of itself, impel mankind forward and “be a multiplier of progress.”  As Rimbaud tells Demeny, Poetry will not lend its rhythm to action, it will be in advance.”

The great Poet, Rimbaud tells Demeny, must plumb the depths of the human experience, and then… “if what he brings back from down there has form, he gives it form; if it is formless, he gives formlessness.  A language must be found.”  Elsewhere stating that, “inventions of the unknown call for new forms.”

Rimbaud even toyed with the idea that a deeper, universal language might one day become the medium for such a grandiose poetry (to Demeny):

“Every word being an idea, the time of a universal language will come! ” […]  “This language will be of the soul, for the soul, containing everything:  smells, sounds, colors– thought holding onto thought, and pulling.”


more posts by Hammering Shield on Rimbaud…

Rimbaud In Search Of Rimbaud

Rimbaud And Bogart — They’ll Always Have Paris

The Innocent, Charming Side Of Rimbaud


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